Diet hard

litmap

I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?

Urban Fantasy – just say no

cyberpunk-work

In last week’s post I brought you ten magnificent reasons why Urban Fantasy is awesome and why you – yes, you! – should write it. ‘But’, I hear you cry, ‘aren’t there two sides to every argument?’ Why yes, there are. So, without further blitheration, I give you the counter: ten reasons why writing UF sucks a big ‘un.

Duality

If UF has a defining characteristic it’s that two worlds exist at the same time: a surface world that’s (more or less) identical to our own; and a second, hidden, reality. How do they interact? Who knows about the second and how have they exploited their knowledge? Is there a Rowling-esque Ministry of Magic? Do vampires have representation in parliament? Or are they entirely separate? You need to have the answers

There are no rules

As I repeatedly banged on about in last week’s blog, UF is a young genre. Thus we have to establish our own world. If we play with magic, or shapeshifters, or vampires or whatever, we have to tell people how they operate in our world. The tropes that have built up in other genres don’t exist here yet. So everything has to be worked out from scratch

History

For how long has this duality existed? Where has influence been exerted? You, as author, need to know these things. Are we dealing with a threat – and, if so, what’s brought it to a head now? Is Theresa May a wizard? Donald Trump a warlock? Have the Illuminati lapped up all the cream – and if not, why not? Hitler was, I’m told, obsessed by the occult: if so – and these secrets existed in your world – why didn’t he win the war? These questions might never crop up directly in your work, but you still need to know the answers

Society and politics

This ‘second world’ has its own rules; it must do, right? In Highlander the immortals fight to the death whenever they meet: are there similar customs/habits/prejudices in your world? Working this out takes thought – and, as you must have realised by now, I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly you have to work out your structure of government; are we dealing with an essential anarchy or is there a hierarchy to be devised and constraints developed?

It requires absolute, complete and total cohesion

The real world is full of complications. It’s messy, unpredictable and incredible. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. You need to obliterate all potential loopholes: one loose thread and your whole tapestry unravels. Your world must work. It may be fantastic to the nth degree, but unless you’ve worked out why, for example, your dark-demon lord didn’t conquer the (human) world in centuries past, then you’ve got nothing. Suspension of belief relies on coherence. You must not let your readers down

If everything can be anything, why isn’t everything something?

Last week I wrote about the magnificent ability for phone boxes to be portals, typewriters mystic demon-conjuring devices and so on. Which is great, but begs the question: when do you stop? If the advantage of UF is that the world is essentially normal then the more ‘normal-abnormals’ you have the less the reader can get a grip on your world. If you’re not careful the very anchors of reality slip away and you have to explain absolutely everything. In great, crunching, deathly-boring detail

It’s wish-fulfilment

And that (nearly) always leads to bad writing. Who wants to read about you? Even with supernatural powers, you’re still nobody

Urban fantasy still has a ‘fringe’ reputation

There are some magnificent authors out there. There’s also some really shoddy writing. Most of the hoi polloi still equate UF with the outer limits of erotica, horror and the like. Which is not to say that there aren’t amazing writers in those genres – there most certainly are. But UF still has an image problem. At least people know what erotica is; you’ll have to explain what urban fantasy actually is on a regular basis

It’s already passé

Remember when everyone was writing conspiracy-theory novels a la Dan Brown or Sam Bourne? Remember when you couldn’t move for sparkly vampires? And zombies? Urban fantasy might be a new genre but novelty doesn’t last; you, my friend, have missed the boatwagon. Those great authors I wrote about last week have already got it nailed down. Anybody who now writes UF will look like a coat-hanger, a populist, an unimaginative dullard. Too late, sweetheart, too late

I saw it first

It’s mine. Hands off.

 

Adventure time

I don’t trust genre.

When you walk into your friendly local library you’ll see the books all neatly corralled, forced to comply with a regime that dictates their neat characterisation. Crime must not rub shoulders with Classics. Literary fiction is too good to mix with the SF/F oiks. Romance must – at all costs – be kept from the tiny LGBT shelf. And conspiracy theories demand a place in non-fiction, despite… well, despite evidence.

And that’s all well and good. But the fact is that a science-fiction novel can have more in common with mythology than it can with its immediate neighbour. It’d make as much sense to shelve books according to their settings as to their body-count (one or two corpses = crime: a million corpses = either space opera or political commentary). Think about it: books set in London all together on one shelf, be they sagas or gangland thrillers. Makes about as much sense as anything else.

Genre-division really doesn’t give you any idea of what any particular story is about, or how it’s told. What’s Agatha Christie got in common with Patricia Cornwell? The stories they tell are so different in voice that they might as well be from different planets. CJ Sansom cohabiting with Ellis Peters? SF/F is equally confusing. Ursula Le Guin next to Terry Pratchett? I love them both but hardly see them as interchangeable.

Which is why we’ve got all these subdivisions within genre. And that’s great. But it still doesn’t give us an idea of what any story is actually like.

See, I’m currently writing an Adventure. It’s an action story, told in a linear fashion: no flashbacks, little circularity save in location. Each scene will lead inexorably to the next as the tension grows, the stakes get higher…*

But of course it won’t be classified as an adventure. There isn’t really an adventure genre any more; not since the heyday of Wilbur Smith and Ian Fleming, not since we Gave Back Our Colonies has such a thing existed. It’s why Bernard Cornwell – the man who taught me everything I know about writing action – is historical fiction. And it’s why Oneiromancer will be classified as Urban Fantasy.

Adventure isn’t so much a genre as it is a way of telling a story. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are adventures. Some of you may know of Christopher Brooker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’; for those who don’t know he divided all fiction into the following categories:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

You can take issue about these categories. I wasn’t entirely convinced with some of his analysis. But a library or bookshop based on this categorisation would make at least as much sense as its current system. Genre, as we know it, really describes a book’s ‘dress’ – its setting or basic theme – rather than what it’s really about. Add a few more categories if you like: Extended Metaphor; Not-So-Subtle Political Manifesto; Loosely-Camouflaged Autobiography; Celebrity Cash-In; The Monster Within.

Really, we only accept the narrows of ‘form’ because a) we all grew up with it, and b) we know it well enough to navigate its treacherous undertow. But it means that I, and many, many other writers will feel ‘misfiled’ because the clothes matter more than the body beneath. And that, if you stop to think about it, is just a little bit strange.

*The right is thoroughly, completely and emphatically reserved to completely change this pre-emptive description of my future novel. What am I, a fortune teller?

Back to school

There’s a ring on my finger and I am a very happy bunny. But now it’s back to school, back to battling the evil forces of paid employment for time to write. After a few weeks of altered priorities it’s a struggle to get the brain together. I’d not expected the post-project depression to hit me quite so hard. I should have known better.

I took last week off to be with the woman, and I’m hugely grateful for that. But now I’m back and I’m determined to get back with the flow. I don’t like having nothing to do. I crave the tiny bits of stress – not too much, just enough to focus and drive – that comes from a major undertaking such as planning a wedding, or indeed a novel. For years I’ve known that I should always have at least one creative outlet on the go at any one time. But it’s always hard to get back in the swim after a break, and that’s where I am right now.

So, here’s a recap. Night Shift. Ninth draft. Major reworking – which means I have to think as well as do.

What I’m trying to achieve is to shift the story from an adventure into a psychological thriller. Yes, I know that the novel will get classified as science-fiction whatever the actual ‘feel’ of the book will be, but still. Having squashed some plot-holes in the last run-through (8a; my draft-numbering system is somewhat erratic) I’m now focussing on small things such as character, motivation and background. It’s not easy. I’m not an expert at any particular genre and this is new territory for me.

So how do I go about it? In recent posts I’ve included pictures of my planning sheets and that really symbolises my writing process at the moment. I’m going back to the very beginning. I’m really thinking. How and why did this person get here? How would they react in any particular situation?

One of my major characters is an African engineer called Max. I know her pretty well. I’ve got a good idea of her background and her personality, but a few days ago I realised I still don’t know enough. Because I’m writing in the first-person I never really looked beyond my protagonist for action. But even – especially – when looking through the eyes of a single person it’s vital to know how those around him will behave. How will Max feel when asked this or that question? What will my supporting cast be doing, how will they be feeling when a crisis hits?

I have to know. I have to know what’s happening off-camera for all the characters in the novel. In an emergency, who will panic? Who will be pragmatic? Who will start the rumours and who will listen to them? All the characters I’ve created are specialists, experts: I have no fools. And only fools listen blindly to their leaders. The rest will act depending on their personalities and backgrounds.

Even if this has little bearing on my story I still need to know what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. For a plot isn’t one thing happening after another, it’s things happening as a direct consequence of what went before. A stray word said in jest can resonate through a novel; a single action made with the best intentions can come back to haunt you. This is dramatic irony. This is the stuff that stories are made of.

So I’m rewriting not so much the story (this time) but the people. Not changing them per se, more trying to give them room to breathe. And always thinking about what’s going on off-camera, because real people don’t stand around waiting for the protagonist to interact with them.

And, of course, I’m still shuffling scenes around and fixing the remaining logic-gaps within my world. In summary: there’s still a lot of work to do. But the novel will be a lot more convincing if I can get it right this time.

My writing process

It’s blog tour day! And that means an extra blog-post for all you lucky, lucky people. No freewheeling, rambling inanities today; there is Structure, and Questions, and (possibly) Revelation.

I should start by thanking Gabby Aquilina, for ‘twas she who invited me to take part. You can read her entry at gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk; please do visit and spread the word. For we are not rich, haughty authorly aristocrats but the mere unpublished (or self-published) peasants who crave all scraps of attention and wallow in the Bog of Eternal Rejection.

And without further ado…                

What am I working on?

Regular blog-readers will know that I’m currently doing a root-and-branch revision of Australis, the second in a trilogy of novels set in near-future Antarctica. The three books (which start with Night Shift and conclude with New Gods) are all a blend of science-fiction, murder mystery and psychological thriller.

I’m also – still – trying to get Chivalry into publishable shape. I’ve been working on this on and off for the past seven years and, at 135,000 words or so, is what Baldrick would probably call my ‘magnificent octopus’. That’s an adventure set partly in modern day (alternative?) Bradford and partly in a computer recreation of the Crusades.

Finally, I have a new work currently gestating in the murky depths of my mind. If I don’t get distracted by another new idea, it’ll be another adventure – possibly YA – set in a Victorian-style Fenland. If I ever get round to actually writing anything you’ll be sure to find out here first.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Firstly I should say that genre exists more in the mind of publishers, agents and bookstores than it does in the minds of authors and readers. I’ve never really put too much stock in the established tropes of fiction – not in that regard, at least. I want to write what I want to write.

That said…

The Night Shift trilogy is different in a number of ways. It doesn’t really belong anywhere; the sci-fi element is minimal, being used only to support the (very human) plot. The setting is unusual: MacLean’s (excellent) Ice Station Zebra and the film The Thing are probably the closest parallels. Finally, the protagonist isn’t a hot-shot detective or some grizzled veteran but a relatively young loner, lost and troubled by traumas of the past. His development over the course of the three books is something I’m really keen to get right.

Then there’s ‘the voice’. All authors have their own voice, and only the very finest satirists and parodists can imitate another’s style convincingly (Boris Akunin is the best ‘pasticher’ I know). An author’s words are like the brush-strokes of an artist; the rhythms and timings of the prose are as distinctive as Van Gogh’s thick oils.

I’ve always leant hugely on my personal classics for inspiration. Andre Norton, Philip K. Dick, Roger MacBride Allen, Bernard Cornwell, Dorothy L. Sayers – I’ve stolen from them all. I guess really my voice is a composite of every book I’ve ever enjoyed, in addition to a sprinkling of my very own fears and neuroses.

Why do I write what I do?

God knows. I’ve really no idea. I guess it comes down to all the books I’ve ever read. I’ve also a massive interest in history, and that provides an almost infinite selection of ‘what if?’ questions – and I do usually start with such a posit, hence my self-description as a writer of speculative fiction rather than sci-fi or thriller or whatever. For example, my starting point for Chivalry was the question ‘what if someone lived by the rules of Chivalry within the modern world?’ I can’t say what question inspired Night Shift as it contains spoilers. It was there, though.

I also dream desperately. At least four projects have been directly inspired by dreams, and in the stories I tell myself in order to slip off into sleep.

More simply, I write because creativity is embedded in my core and I’m no good at anything else. I’ve tried art, music and acting over the years, but now I’ve come to realise that I’m too old, too ugly and too crap to be anything but a writer. I have such a massive need to speak, to express myself; I guess that over the years I’ve thought myself voiceless so often and I’ve slipped into writing as a way to communicate… to communicate myself. I want to be understood, I want to explain the way I work. Gradually, as other options faded away, I’ve come to realise that this is my metier.

How does your writing process work?

Badly. No, not really. Just… well, a little chaotically, I suppose. I don’t plan. I get my idea and mould that rough core into something workable and logical. For Night Shift I began with the setting and then worked backwards to divine what kind of world could generate such a situation. Then I might sit down and sketch outlines of the major characters; again, this is more practical that inspirational. ‘Right, what crew are needed to keep this Antarctic base running?’ I might never look at my notes after I start in earnest.

I start the actual writing when I have a protagonist, an antagonist and a vague idea where I want the piece to finish. I’ll usually begin when I can visualise a scene so strongly that it can’t not be written. And then carry on to the bitter end. It’s only then I’ll really work on the words. I also rely on friends and family to beta-read and tell me where I’m going wrong.

I work part-time, so have enough free hours to write five days a week, either in the mornings or afternoon depending on my shift. In the mornings I’m sharper but have less time. I’m often dopey in the afternoons, but having more time allows me to work at my own steady pace.

I always, always, write to music. Silence is too loud. I like good ol’ rock and indie, with slices of folk and metal thrown in for good measure. I can write to most things, but it can’t be too ‘wordy’. It also takes a bit of time for me to ease new albums into heavy rotation. Unfortunately familiarity is best, but I do try and vary the patterns as much as possible.

How much I do in a session varies dramatically. I’ll admit to being a word-count obsessive, but I don’t have targets. I work to the laws of the local bus service. It’s also tremendously satisfying to see the word-count go down as that almost always means you’re making things better.

I prevaricate to the nth degree. I’m always pausing to wash up, put the kettle on or to just pace around the room. I’m a big fan of this, especially where the thinking is hard. I like to give the subconscious time to mull things over…

Coming next…

Right, that’s my tuppence chucked in the well. Next week will be the turn of…

David F. Chapman – writer, game designer, editor, publisher and all-round control freak. He is probably best known for his work as game designer on the award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game for Cubicle 7 Entertainment, and as line developer on Conspiracy X 2.0 for Eden Studios.

He has also worked on such games as Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Terra Primate, and his game systems have been adapted for use in the official Primeval RPG and Rocket Age. He also produced such comics as Missing, and D’Adventures of ISRAELI for renowned comic artist D’Israeli, and will be publishing his forthcoming roleplaying game of dreamshare, WILD.

Find his blog at autocratik.blogspot.co.uk. He is a man of rare wit, intelligence, and subtlety.

And…

Liah Thorley –Liah currently lives in Abingdon, in the soggiest county in England. She writes historical fiction and has two finished novels, though hasn’t actually got round to doing anything with them as yet. Her themes range from historical romance to the more supernatural with vampires and time travel. Her third novel is sitting under her desk waiting for her papers for a part time Masters in History to be done for the year. 

You can find more at liahthorley.com.

Please check both these folks out – great writers both, and lovely people to boot. Also check out #mywritingprocess on Twitter for more instalments.

A question of literature

Is there a difference between literature and genre fiction? Where are the lines? Is there any practical difference in the way you go about writing one rather than the other?

What it all comes down to is that I want to write the best novel I possibly can. I don’t want people to say, ‘well, it’s okay for sci-fi’. I want people to think my work’s good full stop. But I’ve spent the last week mulling over some criticism I received and also the faint praise I garnered in response. My writing, it was said, was not descriptive enough – it was crying out for detailed, harsh, uncomfortable nouns and soulful sweeping sunsets. Other people said that the amount of description I used was ‘fine for genre’.

What does ‘fine for genre’ mean? That crime novelists inherently write weaker prose? That horror is just blood and shock? Of course not.

So now I don’t know whether I want to be re-writing to work on psychology, characterisation and plot, or whether I want to be filling my worlds with texture and beauty. Can you have it both ways? That’s really what I don’t know. Of course you want the words to be as communicative as possible, but there must be a point at which literary flourishes diminish the flow of the story. I just wish someone would tell me where that line is.

It’s fun. It’s fun to ask questions. To think things in a way you’ve not considered them before. But now I have a tiny invisible man on my shoulder telling me ‘no, it’s not literary enough! You can do better!” Is this a good thing? I really have no idea if I’m improving the work or just thickening up the stew.

So what, really, is the difference between genre and literature? Someone out there must know. It can’t be the location or the form of the plot, can it? Because setting is just a medium for ideas, and every novel has a story, right? And if it’s not those it must be something in the quality of writing.

Or is it time to dispense with the term ‘literature’ altogether as a meaningless relic of another age?

The lazy writer’s guide to genre

The lazy writer’s guide to genre 

Know you want to write be aren’t sure what? Simply scan through the list below and you’ll soon find the genre for you! 

Childrens & Young Adults 

How well do you know the little blighters? Can you find the right degree of simplicity without falling into patronisingness? Are you afraid of being terribly, terribly silly – or, at the older age-range, terribly po-faced and intense (because, like, teenagers feel, man)? Plus you have to pick an additional genre, which means you’ve got all those problems too. Incredibly difficult and best avoided 

Comedy 

Risky. Visual humour doesn’t work too well when written down, and sarcasm and irony create black comedy at best. Unless you’re really, really good at writing bon mots and creating high farce I’d steer well clear. Otherwise you end up looking like a bit of a prat

 Crime 

A tricky bugger as you actually have to create a plot. One both convoluted and logical. You also need to know a little about police work, criminals and the like. Or you could just make it all up, but beware you don’t fall over the Cliff of Implausibility. I can’t recommend this

 Erotica

 Icky-squicky couplings displayed in all their misbegotten glory. Oh yes. Just be ready to create a secret identity, for nobody looks at you the same way after they’ve read about your predilection for whips, chains and hot wax. Trust me on this 

Fantasy 

No-one in their right minds would ever write fantasy. For a start you have to create your own ‘world’, with its own ‘laws’, its various ‘peoples’ and so on. Nightmare. You’ll soon be drowning in notes. And that’s even before we get to magic. Even magic has to have rules or the novel will just be an expurgated spew of chaos. Far too much like work 

Historical 

How much do you like research? Because you can bet your bottom dollar that every mistake, every little tiny anachronism, every modern phrasing will be picked up by somebody – and historical fiction fans are notorious letter-writers. And how are you going to combine modern attitudes – towards women or sexuality, say – with the realities of the past? 

Horror 

Ready to embrace your deepest, darkest fears and pin them to the page so everyone can see what a freak you are? Have an obsession with viscera and parasites? If so, horror might be the genre for you. Just be ready to be scowled at by people who think they’re too good for all that. Right down there with erotica in the ‘respect’ stakes, but without that strange warm feeling that could be guilt, could be… something else 

Literary fiction 

Are you a genius? No? Move along, please, nothing to see here 

Romance 

Can you write intensely emotional love scenes without use of the ‘f’ word? Are you capable of describing deep, passionate kisses that go on for days without resorting to cliché? Have you the skills to craftily navigate your way around the Bad Sex Award? Can you find something new to say in this, the oldest of stories? No? Me neither 

Science-fiction 

See fantasy, but replace ‘magic’ with ‘technology’. Again, stay away 

Spy 

There are two options: the James Bond style glamour-chase and the le Carre-a-like intrigueathon. One is relatively simple but somewhat old-fashioned. The other is incredibly complicated. Both are full of double-agents, femme fatales and suspicious accents. Like a crime novel but with even more twists and turns. Far too difficult, especially now we’re out of the Cold War 

War 

This is like historical: you’ve got to spend hours and hours and hours of research. And that’s before you lift a pen in anger. Then you’ve got to write the damn thing, finding something that hasn’t been said many times already. Finally you’ve got to avoid causing any national/racial offence whilst being true to the situation. Basically this is far too much like work 

Westerns 

A combination of historical and adventure at heart: but can you really balance the brutality of the old Cowboys & Indians reality with modern sensibilities? Don’t forget the need for strong female characters and all sorts of racial sensitivity. And it is a bit of a niche market these days 

All of which should lead you to… 

Parish magazine 

This is more like it. The natural home of every writer who wants a quiet life. Highly recommended